Opinion: Conservatives seeking mythical past

November 4, 2012


Well, I sure got that one wrong.

Four years ago, on the eve of the last presidential election, I wrote in this space of how the country has spent much of the last three decades “re-litigating” the 1960s, arguing over the changes wrought in that decade. As far as social justice is concerned, of course, the 1960s stand second only to the 1860s as the most profoundly transformative decade in American history. It was in those years that black folks came off the back of the bus, women came out of the kitchen, Hispanics came off the margins and gay people first peeked beyond the closet.

Conservatives have been trying to repeal the decade ever since, a crusade that seemed to reach its greatest clarity and lowest depth in the rush to define a certain jug-eared senator from Illinois who was, in 2008, running for president. He stood to become the first black man to hold that job. This was not an incidental thing.

For his supporters, it helped make him the embodiment of “hope” and “change,” the renewal of inchoate liberal promises that died with Robert F. Kennedy. For his detractors, it was the realization of every paranoia-drenched, racially tinged threat to the white picket fences and Mom’s apple pie of status quo.

“You know what I hope Barack Obama is?” I wrote in 2008. “I hope he is reconciliation — the end of the 1960s at long last. And the beginning of something new.”

He wasn’t. That’s what I got wrong.

There are, after all, many words you could use to describe the period from 2008 to now. “Reconciliation” is not one of them. To the contrary, the nation has endured a four-year temper tantrum of shrillness and ferocity nearly unparalleled in history. You have to go back to the 1960s, or maybe even the 1850s, to find a time when America was this angry with itself.

Far from putting the ‘60s to rest, we have seen a fresh assault on what had previously been considered the settled gains of that era. I mean, who could have predicted this election season would see debates on women’s reproductive health? Or, that we’d have to defend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965? Or that the state of Arizona would ban ethnic studies classes? Or that there would be a new attack on the right of public workers to unionize? And that’s not to mention the new onslaught of coded racial slurs. They still say Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.A. Just the other day, Mitt Romney surrogate John Sununu, honest to God, called him “lazy.”

Lord, have mercy. It’s like they can’t help themselves.

“Restore Our Future” goes the name of a conservative super PAC. It seems increasingly obvious, though, that the idea here is to restore our past. Except, it’s less a real past than a collective yearning for the perceived simplicity and normalcy of yesterday. And it is not “ours” in any sense, belonging instead to the collective memory of those who had the color, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation that signified rightness back in that mythic long ago.

In a word, it is not real — and never was.

Yet, the power it holds over conservative minds is proved in the decibel level of the temper tantrum, the desperate fury of the resistance. We have seen rocks flying through windows and weapons taken to presidential speeches. We have seen the president called the antichrist and accused of favoring white slavery. We have seen brazen schemes of voter suppression that must have Fannie Lou Hamer spinning in her grave.

Now, finally, we see Election Day. You will find no words about reconciliation here this time around, no suggestion the ‘60s might finally be at an end. Just a lament for the naive optimism that made such a suggestion possible — and for a nation where, these days, optimism is often devoured by rage.

It turns out the mythic past dies harder than anyone ever knew.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


Mike Ford 5 years, 6 months ago

beating the trolls....priceless.....it must really blow when you your position is soooo weak that you have to turn reality on it's head to make a factless point much as conservatives do. sorry it shouldn't be 1955 or 1855 again for that matter. sorry that reality never it existed in the first place. sorry you don't realize that some people had to stage sit ins at restaurant counters in woolworths to make racists and their clueless supporters of segregation to acknowledge the validity of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments almost a century after their enactments due to Jim Crow laws. Now we have Juan Crow laws and you people are still in denial to the offensiveness of your actions. Denial is weak and pathetic.

Armstrong 5 years, 6 months ago

Very predictable, thanks Len. Z Z Z Z Z Z Z Z Z Z Z Z Z Z Z Z

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 6 months ago

As Stephen Colbert puts it in the title to his latest book--

America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't

fiddleback 5 years, 6 months ago

So many bitter partisans repeat the coded racist/xenophobic language without seeming remotely aware of the primitive hatred they perpetuate. Disagree with Obama's policies, fine, but all these insinuations about Manchurian Candidate-esque conspiracies, whether it's his boyhood exposure to Islam, or his Kenyan father, or the paths he chose in teaching law, civil rights, and community organizing, are clearly based on ascribing to Obama an absolutely evil other-ness. Perhaps it's just another generational dilemma that so many boomers and older citizens grew up in communities where barely-veiled bigotry towards other cultures, complexions, and most other things not fully understood, was simply the standard attitude?

And sure, maybe it's partially reciprocating the rising vitriol of GWB's terms. But still, this has definitely reached new lows. Back then, some hyperbolically called Bush a fascist, so I'd expect their counterparts to glibly label Obama a communist/socialist. There's the fringe "truther" contingent that accused Bush & co. of orchestrating 9-11, so "birther"-ism, or "death panels," or the idea that Obama orchestrated recent mass shootings to pass gun laws, or the myriad other unhinged paranoid fantasies, are not really all that shocking taken in isolation. The problem is when such fringe fantasies become mainstream. The extent to which these patent fictions gain currency, esp. via cynical allusions by national leadership, is an outright disgrace. Of course, by the time this filth floats downstream through the dumbest talking point parrots and frothing partisan lapdogs, it creates a rancid stew seasoned with all the most prejudiced elements of our country's not-so-distant past. Whatever meat of actual issues hides in this dreck is a punishment to discern. Indeed, with this level of toxicity and paranoid nonsense, the near-impossibility of grounded, civil, dispassionate dialogue seems more comparable to the 1860s than the 1960s.

Flap Doodle 5 years, 6 months ago

"...Indeed, with this level of toxicity and paranoid nonsense, the near-impossibility of grounded, civil, dispassionate dialogue seems more comparable to the 1860's than the 1960's..." Telling people to vote as revenge is right down that alley, wouldn't you say?

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 6 months ago

No it's not. Telling people to fight back is perfectly acceptable.I know I would refuse to just lay down and let the likes of you run right over me.

Flap Doodle 5 years, 6 months ago

I'd not sully my shoes on you, cait. I'd carefully step around you.

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 6 months ago

Actually, snap, giving me a wide berth is probably a wise thing to do.

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 6 months ago

Better than right wingnuts seeking a mythical past.

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago

In a way that's right.

Liberals work for a future that's better than our past and present, and one that doesn't exist yet, but may if we work towards it.

In a number of ways, they've been successful at that, thank goodness.

Armstrong 5 years, 6 months ago

Correct me if I'm wrong but didn't Barry run in '08 on the falsehood of bringing the country together ?

Just read an article about Barrys latest campaign slogan " Revenge ! " When all the slick packaging has worn off and you have to run on substance and record without a teleprompter you are just left grasping at whatever you think may help you out. Even a complicit media can't bail Barry out of his failures and record. Sorry Koolaid drinkers Barry is 1 and done.

It will be fun to watch Chrissy Mathews and Larry O'Donnell explode on election night however.

headdoctor 5 years, 6 months ago

I wouldn't be to quick to rule out the local legend in his own mind publisher of the KVSM rag. He has almost a whole month of spare time before he has to get all 50 copies delivered to the recycle bin.

riverdrifter 5 years, 6 months ago

Grey goose is still perched on the keyboard.

Kendall Simmons 5 years, 6 months ago

Why on earth would anyone seriously believe that Obama's campaign slogan is now "Revenge"?

Sure are a lot of gullible Republicans out there apparently.

verity 5 years, 6 months ago

The World seems to have gone back to disappearing all trace of a disappeared comment, leaving hanging chads and all sorts of strange phenomena.

verity 5 years, 6 months ago

Me, too. Somebody called me a jack-booted feminazi. I was so honored. Now all gone. Why?

headdoctor 5 years, 6 months ago

This coming from someone who is well practiced at doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. What is the twisted fascination with having to be on a small mid-Western news paper forum?

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 6 months ago

I'm turning 60 years old soon, This past election season has been a mind blower. For some reason I keep hearing this little voice in my head saying, "We have to fight this ^%$# all over AGAIN?"

Kathy Theis-Getto 5 years, 6 months ago

I have the same voice, cait. We MUST continue to fight.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 6 months ago

My voice tells me the pendulum swung too far one way, then the other, then back again and back again. And like any bell curve, the further the pendulum swings toward one end or the other, the fewer people support that swing.

But, but, but, how can that be? Those on the fringes shout the loudest?

I know. I know.

(Just thought that while discussing voices in our heads, I'd have a conversation with one of mine).

verity 5 years, 6 months ago

As far as women's rights are concerned, the pendulum never even got to the center.

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago

Also, there's an inherent problem in using the pendulum metaphor - it's not applicable to all situations or issues.

For example, how can there be "too much" equality? There's either equality or there's not, and most folks would find the idea of too much of it a bit strange.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 6 months ago

Equality is like being "fair".

If there's a fly in my house, but not one in your house, we could send in the feds with a bunch of shotguns to kill that fly, thereby achieving a level of fairness, or equality.

But seriously, can there be too much equality? That's interesting. Let's look at affirmative action. If blacks are about 12% of the population, and one of the arguments used by advocates of affirmative action is that having diversity itself enhances whatever experience your striving for, (education comes to mind), then wouldn't it stand to reason that having 13% of the population be black would enhance it even more. Or 15%, or 20%. Or is the serious argument that for me, a non-black, my experience is enhanced only at 12%, not 11%, not 13%.

The whole argument stands reason on it's head, in my opinion. Affirmative action may be good for some other reason, but not that one. So you'll have to come up with some other reason to achieve equality.

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago

No it isn't.

Equal rights for gay folks means they get the same rights as straight folks. Equal rights for women means they get the same rights as men. Equal rights for black folks means they get the same rights as white ones.


So, with a number of issues, the "middle" isn't the best place to be, in my view. What would that mean? That "some" women get the same rights as men?

jhawkinsf 5 years, 6 months ago

I'm a strong believer in equal rights. Feel free to go to my history and you'll see my consistent advocacy for equal rights for every group you mentioned. And just for the record, I believe in equal rights for everyone.

Equality, that's a different thing altogether. Unlike equal rights, which has specific defined meanings, equality is much more vague. Does that mean you and I earn equal amounts of money, we live in houses of equal size, our children go to schools of equal quality, our wives are of equal beauty? Equality of results is very different than equality of opportunity, which itself is very different than equal rights.

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago

That's what cait and the others have been talking about - equal rights for women.

So, then you agree that some issues aren't best solved by some sort of "middle ground", right?

Didn't sound that way from your "pendulum" comment.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 6 months ago

I absolutely believe in equal right for women. But that doesn't necessarily mean some sort of equality must be maintained.

Look at last night's election. It's being reported that more women will be in Congress than ever before. Of course, it's still far below 50%. Am I OK with that? Yes, because that's what the people voted for. I'd be OK if that number was 0% and I'd be OK with it if it were 100%. As long as the people voted fairly, then the result is irrelevant. Equality is achieved by having an open and fair election, not necessarily by the result.

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago


So, then, let's talk about equal rights for gay and lesbian, etc. folks. It's quite clear that they don't have those, right?

jhawkinsf 5 years, 6 months ago

They don't. And they should. Again, look back at my history (oh, OK, it's a long and tedious read), but you will see that I've been a strong and consistent supporter of gay rights.

That said, look to San Francisco, where it could easily be argued that gays have not only achieved equality, they are a driving force in that city. They are well represented in business, government, politics. There is the beginning of a push back, not to deny basic human rights, but to regain a certain equilibrium.

There has been much discussion about and condemnation of the naked guys who populate the Castro. And some of that is coming from families. Some guy decided it was wise to become naked at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting.

Is it mere coincidence that S.F. has the lowest percentage of children of any major American city?

The Pride Parade, a huge celebration in S.F. allowed NAMBLA to march with them, oh more than two decades ago. There was a backlash as there should be. Not to deny the very nature of the parade. That rightfully continues. But without that very controversial group. The pendulum swings.

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago


Let's keep it short, ok?

So, you think that gay and lesbian folks should have equal rights? Have we finally found an issue that you think is worth improving?

If so, then your "pendulum" metaphor isn't applicable to that issue.

What do you think should be done to ensure equal rights for gay/lesbian/etc. folks?

jhawkinsf 5 years, 6 months ago

First, I think the Defense Of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. I married in another state and that marriage is recognized in every state. Even should some state not allow gay marriage, I don't see how they can deny recognition to a gay couple legally married in another state. The DOMA was an unholy alliance from it's inception. I think the Supreme Court will strike it down, at least that part of it. I look forward to that happening.

I support anti-discrimination laws that specifically target gays. There is little doubt in my mind that they fit into what we generally define as a protected class. That protected class status needs to be set into law. That would be an absolutely correct use of the ICC, so it could be and should be done at the federal level.

Anything else?

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago


I agree about the DOMA, and hope the SC will consider and overturn it as unconstitutional.

Not sure I agree about the use of the ICC, which is intended to regulate commerce between and among the states.

I'm just glad we finally found something you think should be improved.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 6 months ago

I had in mind the denying of housing to gays as something the ICC could be used for. Certainly employment as well.

verity 5 years, 6 months ago

As poetic as that is, tange, it's just depressing. Something joyous, please!

verity 5 years, 6 months ago

My thoughts exactly---referring to Cait's comment about fighting this all over again.

yourworstnightmare 5 years, 6 months ago

Rights are not god given. It is human beings who recognize the innate rights of human beings. Rights must be continually fought for and actively maintained by the actions and will of people.

History can move backward as well as forward.

Eternal vigilance is the cost of freedom.

Armstrong 5 years, 6 months ago

"History can move backward as well as forward." History can't move forward only change. Funny you would say something to that effect however. What did Barry promise '08 Change and what is the slogan for '12 Forward. Barry has done neither

Kendall Simmons 5 years, 6 months ago

And you know this...how? Process of vivid imagination???

Flap Doodle 5 years, 6 months ago

How's about a brave new future where an overwhelmed amateur President doesn't add $6 trillion to the national debt in a single term?

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 6 months ago

Better than a "1984" where "big brothers Koch" pull the puppet strings.
By the way, federal spending under Obama is the lowest it's been in 60 years.

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 6 months ago

Wow! I never thought I'd see the day one of you would accuse a Rupert Murdoch publication of LYING! I'm gobsmacked!

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago

To be fair, that's not true exactly.

The rise in federal spending is the lowest, percentage wise, but actual spending is higher each year.

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago


The chart seems to demonstrate that it's true.

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago

The chart states that it's using figures from 2010-2013, so 2009 spending isn't part of it.

I'll look at the link though.

booyalab 5 years, 6 months ago

Yeah, getting into the worst deficit ever kind of hampers one's ability to spend. But give him time, I promise he'll do better.

booyalab 5 years, 6 months ago

Without a doubt, the finest impression of a political Andy Rooney I've ever seen.

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